In contemporary short fiction tonal shifts and pattern breaking are common, but it’s pretty easy to see why the Lear-level of formal experiment is a little less usual. Short stories have the burden of little space. They need to pull you in fast then communicate ideas that seem worth your time. A lot of work goes into getting the pulse beating, so to turn around and derail the thing is risky.
But we do have recent stories that manage the task.
The octopus threatens boundaries. Its body, a boneless mass of soft tissue, has no fixed shape. Even large octopuses – the largest species, the Giant Pacific, has an arm span of more than six metres and weighs a hundred pounds – can fit through an opening an inch wide, or about the size of its eye. This, combined with their considerable strength – a mature male Giant Pacific can lift thirty pounds with each of its 1600 suckers – means that octopuses are difficult to keep in captivity. Many octopuses have escaped their aquarium tanks through small holes; some have been known to lift the lid of their tank, making their way, sometimes across stretches of dry floor, to a neighbouring tank for a snack, or to the nearest drain, and maybe from there back home to the sea.
Octopuses do not have any stable colour or texture, changing at will to match their surroundings: a camouflaged octopus can be invisible from just a few feet away. Like humans, they have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body. An octopus’s neurons are dispersed throughout its body, and two-thirds of them are in its arms: each arm can act intelligently on its own, grasping, manipulating and hunting. (Octopuses have arms, not tentacles: tentacles have suckers only at their tips. Squid and cuttlefish have a combination of arms and tentacles.) In evolutionary terms, the intelligence of octopuses is an anomaly. The last common ancestor between octopuses on the one hand, and humans and other intelligent animals (monkeys, dolphins, dogs, crows) on the other, was probably a primitive, blind worm-like creature that existed six hundred million years ago. Other creatures that are so evolutionarily distant from humans – lobsters, snails, slugs, clams – rate pretty low on the cognitive scale. But octopuses – and to some extent their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid – frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.
“Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.,” by Danielle Allen, is a compassionate retelling of an abjectly tragic story. Michael pleaded guilty, went to prison for almost 11 years, and spent just one year as a free man before being sent back to jail for a parole violation. He was released again at 28. At 29, he was murdered.
Among the most valuable contributions Allen makes is forcing us to ask: To what end are we locking up our children? Are we not foreclosing their options before their lives have even begun?
Chika climbs in through the store window first and then holds the shutter as the woman climbs in after her. The store looks as if it was deserted long before the riots started; the empty rows of wooden shelves are covered in yellow dust, as are the metal containers stacked in a corner. The store is small, smaller than Chika's walk-in closet back home. The woman climbs in and the window shutters squeak as Chika lets go of them. Chika's hands are trembling, her calves burning after the unsteady run from the market in her high-heeled sandals. She wants to thank the woman, for stopping her as she dashed past, for saying "No run that way!" and for leading her, instead, to this empty store where they could hide. But before she can say thank you, the woman says, reaching out to touch her bare neck, "My necklace lost when I'm running."
"I dropped everything," Chika says. "I was buying oranges and I dropped the oranges and my handbag." She does not add that the handbag was a Burberry, an original one that her mother had bought on a recent trip to London.
Still robed in his white nightgown, Holman grabbed the wheel and started to steer the Saunders-Hill himself. In the distance, the captain—who was attending to an emergency elsewhere—barked directions to turn port and starboard. The boat steadied, the wake settled, and Holman navigated the damaged ship to a nearby harbor for repairs.
When the skipper of the Saunders-Hill returned to the helm, his jaw dropped. He had caught glimpses of Holman's white nightgown from across the deck and assumed the person guiding the boat was his wife.
Instead, he discovered a 36-year-old blind man.
I love stories where somebody pukes.
Okay, what I mean is: I love reading about spontaneous physical reactions from characters. But I also love reading about vomit. And piss. And menstrual blood and shit and spit. Excretions often show us emotional change is happening: pain or pleasure, happiness or grief. Stories that assess the mechanical functions of the body—its readiness to open, to break, to secrete—mark a character’s vulnerability. In contemporary short fiction by women writers, bodies open and leak in numerous ways. Amelia Gray utilizes spew as a tool to startle readers into deeper intimacy. Alexandra Kleeman’s work befuddles with bodies, hollowing them out and subverting secretions to confuse the narrative. Helen Oyeyemi creates sentience from these physical responses in order to sculpt fantastic new fairy tale worlds. Though used in very different ways, all three women showcase the importance of the body and its emissions to narrative structure. By utilizing various forms of “effluvia” in their work, these authors give us greater insight into the human condition. They show us why shit matters.
There is one tangential remnant of the circus that thrills me to the bone, and that is the low-grade confectionary candy called Circus Peanuts. Circus Peanuts, as far as I can tell, have literally nothing to do with circuses, or even with peanuts. They are usually found on the bottom candy shelf at gas-station convenience marts or at some chain drug stores.
Yet with each reading of this volume, one sees more – as one’s eyes adjust to the dark. For in many of these poems light is wanting (in both senses of the phrase).
“Las Vegas,” as Joan Didion once wrote, “is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets.” It is gleefully predatory and naked in its fundament of avarice and vice of every kind. It’s a poor person’s idea of luxury.
Whereas the casinos and shopping malls cascade with wattage, a tonic mix of brand names and booze, everywhere dripping with the promise of sex and the trappings of decadence, these empty industrial outskirts are the staging — and dumping — grounds that allow such a mirage to project itself like a miasma through the hotels’ eternal midnight. These dead zones hold the waste, human and otherwise, behind the magic curtain; this wasteland is both backlot for and blowback from the Strip’s outsized simulacra.
Memories of Paris are entwined with its eateries. From Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to expatriates’ essays in the New York Times following the terrorist attacks in November 2015, writers have shown how their lives in Paris are marked by its restaurants, bakeries, and markets. Hemingway’s account of his postwar Parisian life uses food to define his days, his success, and his relationships. His struggle to find outlets for his fiction is linked with the tantalizing “bakery shops” that “had such good things in the windows and people [eating] outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food.” He recounts meeting authors and artists for aperitifs or champagne, explaining that “drinking wine … was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.” He wrote in cafés amid the “smell of café crèmes.” A century later, news of the November attacks brought nostalgia for one writer, who, no longer in Paris, recalled the market “beckoning with the smell of roasting chickens” and “the flash of bright fruit against stark winter skies.” Another essayist described his decision, days later, to seek out the farmers and vendors of his local market. Its reopening, he wrote, reflected the resilience of Paris: “the market will be a celebration of the city itself, unvanquished, animated and always hungry.”
My students laugh, and then I turn to the matter at hand. “This semester, I will stand before you as an elephant, but I will also try my best to be a professor.”
Elephants don’t know what it is that makes them elephants. They just are. Similarly, novelists do not consciously dwell on what they do when they write their novels. The things they mean to describe and express when they write, the territory they wish to cover, may be very different from those elements that readers and students focus on. The author of a novel is not always the best placed to interpret it, and eventually others may become more familiar with the text than he is.
There's no shortage of things to admire in My Absolute Darling — it's a devastating and powerful debut from a writer who's almost certain to have a wonderful career ahead of him.
Rushdie has always been an impish myth-manipulator, refusing to accept, as in this novel, that the lives of the emperors can’t be blended with film noir, popular culture and crime caper. On the evidence of The Golden House, he is quite right.
“Made for Love” crackles and satisfies by all its own weird rules, subversively inventing delight where none should exist. How can a book be so bright, and so dark?
Zapruder’s mission is to “explore what it is about poetry that makes people feel they don’t understand it […] take seriously the objections people have, and try to address those objections clearly and simply.” “Most people,” he observes (by which I think he may mean most Americans) regard poetry “on a spectrum of skepticism to scorn.” His thesis is that contrary to what the majority may think, poetry’s pleasures and benefits are accessible to anyone willing to invest a bit of time and attention. And he contends that poetry’s riches are worth having, perhaps especially in our current, alienated political moment. No special tools, bohemian lifestyles, passwords, or degrees are needed, he argues. I am happy to report that he is refreshingly successful in making his case.
Of the two ebooks I’ve ever bought, one was trivial, and the other is a book that I’ve never, ever told anybody about. When I first bought this book I would have died of shame if anybody saw me reading it or happened to find it in my apartment. I purchased it as an ebook because that was the only way I could be sure that it would remain my secret.
I bought it in November 2010, and even though I’ve never told anybody about it, I don’t mind sharing it with you all now. Its title, in full, is Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, and it is an academic work of gender theory by a Princeton professor named Gayle Salamon, published in 2010 by Columbia University Press.
Writing from the perspective of an abused teenage girl was risky, and some readers and critics may fault Mr. Tallent’s handling of such a sensitive subject, or for attempting it in the first place. Mr. Tallent, who often spoke in abstract, almost academic language about his work, said he approached writing about Turtle’s abuse “with trepidation, and my trepidation had several valences.” But he was compelled to write about it in specific, unsparing language — in part because he feels that violence against young women is too often treated as a plot point in literature, rather than as a way to understand a victim’s experience.
He cupped the two halves of my tush and spoke directly to them. “Run away with me, girls,” he whispered. “She doesn’t understand our love.”
I lay still, staring out the window, letting them have their time together. If I protested, I’d only make his case stronger: I’m less fun than my own butt. Which is not untrue. In my essence, I am a stone, unmoving for ten thousand years, unless picked up and moved. It’s not just sex; I find this whole experience—life—gratuitously slow and drawn out. See it crawl, second by fucking second. If I’m a workaholic, it’s only because I hate work so much that I’m trying to finish it, all of it, once and for all. So I can just ride out the rest of my life in some kind of internal trance state. Not a coma but, like, a step above that.
The Tok and Teo families are a model of traditional harmony, with three generations gathered under one roof, enjoying each other’s company over slices of fruit and cups of tea on a Saturday afternoon in Singapore.
There is only one problem: The youngest and oldest generations can barely communicate with each other.
Slates have been getting a slating this week. Get it?! Slates? Getting slated? They can’t use that in the headline now – I’ve nabbed it. A lovely great big apposite yet unenjoyable pun. Stick that on your slate and eat it. Perhaps using some sort of gooey reduction as a gum, just to keep all the wrong-coloured tomatoes in position.
Actually, I stole the idea from the Daily Mail which went with “Slated! Plates back on menu”, although there’s a chance that, unprompted, I could have thought of it myself. I don’t think it’s ridiculous self-flattery to suggest that. It’s just a pun on slate – it’s not the Dyson Airblade. Though both are products of Eurosceptic creativity. Maybe they can make Brexit work if they maintain this level of output. Though some claim it just makes an unpleasant noise and blasts microparticles of excrement all over the place, poisoning the atmosphere. I’m talking about the Daily Mail.
Old-school bibliographers and librarians would probably be mortified by the incursion of pulps, which are fighting not only for shelf space but also for influence. But instead of being corralled and appropriated into old models of scholarship and curation, the pulp sensibility is spreading. Traditional bibliography and librarianship are being reread and reshaped with a pulp mentality.
In reality, there was no Adelina White, but through this fictional creation Giono fantasizes that a brief, intense experience could inspire one of the most celebrated novels in American literature. This fantasy is hardly exclusive to Giono: it motivates the whole experience of reading Melville, or indeed any author. We posthumous readers understand Melville through novels like Moby-Dick that often accompany us for as brief a period as the fictional Adelina accompanied her fictional Melville. Isn’t this what reading is? We spend a week with a novel, it affects us greatly, and we feel we know its author better for it. It inspires us, and we respond with our own fictions, biographies, and translations. We spend the rest of our lives waiting for a response.
Weiss steadily builds the tension to an ending you knew was coming — and, let's be honest, probably hoped for — yet it still arrives as a sudden, powerful shock. It's a shock that lingers, leaving you thinking about what it means to be a strong woman — and what it means to escape.
Of the computer pioneers who drove the mid-20th-century information technology revolution—an elite men’s club of scholar-engineers who also helped crack Nazi codes and pinpoint missile trajectories—Shannon may have been the most brilliant of them all. His achievements were at the level of an Einstein or a Feynman, but Shannon has not achieved commensurate fame. It’s possible his playful tinkering caused some to write him off as unserious. But it’s also possible that his greatest work seemed unapproachable to most.
Shannon’s seminal work was profoundly abstract. As the “father of information theory,” he took the bold step of divorcing information from meaning, conceiving of messages as just collections of bits, devoid of an explicit connection to the world. In many ways his work is not only counterintuitive, but dismal and remote.
‘I have nothing to doe but work and read my Eyes out,’ complained Anne Vernon in 1734, writing from her country residence in Oxfordshire to a friend in London. She and her circle of correspondents (who included Mary Delany, the artist and bluestocking) swapped rhyming jokes, ‘a Dictionary of hard words’, and notes on what they were currently reading. Their letters are suggestive of the boredom suffered by women of a certain class, constrained by social respectability and suffering the restlessness of busy but unfulfilled minds.
But that’s not their interest for Abigail Williams in this fascinating study of habits of reading in the Georgian period. Her quest is rather to discover how they read, in which room of the house, who with, out loud or alone and silently, as entertainment or education. A professor of English literature at Oxford University, she has turned her attention away from the content of books to focus on the ways in which that content is received and appreciated.
In the 1990s, my feminist friends and I had a fervent anti-sexual assault movement, including Take Back the Night marches down frat row and a list of guys to stay away from, furtively scribbled in a bathroom stall. We talked about sexual assault as an affront of the patriarchy, and universities did not like it. At Brown, originator of the bathroom list trend, an administrator smeared the authors as “Magic Marker terrorists” and threatened them with expulsion if caught.
As much as you may read about the angry cries of “social justice warriors” in current news, today’s students discuss sexual assault in a completely new way. Their primary concern is sexual ethics. Debates about what is consensual and what is not, what type of sex is fair and what is immoral, are essential to life at Wesleyan, I learned during visits to the campus a few semesters ago. “There’s a difference between illegal and unethical,” Chloe, a neuroscience major, told me, firmly. “Life is not about doing whatever you can do. It’s about not doing what is traumatic to another person.”
When I was 23, my Norwegian relatives taught me how to sit still. During the long sunlit evenings in the summer of 1992, my cousins would lead me across the farm to the edge of the forest, each of us lugging a folding chair. There, in a scraggly bramble of wild blueberries, we would set them down a few yards apart, each in our own little patch.
For hours, we faced south, bathing our faces in the golden Arctic light, a dreamy brightness that persisted past midnight. Every few minutes, we’d reach down, pluck a berry and pop it into our mouths. You could find us there most every night during July, starting at 10 o’clock.
I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.
Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.
Sometimes, when language is undone at the root, when the connection between the essential self and the outer layers—of the mind, speech, gesture—is severed, the only way through is through metaphor. We cheat the guards, we trick the sentry. Something, however small, makes it through.
So how can one adequately capture experiences that very often undo language itself, that are often so profoundly isolating precisely because they defy our common speech, our tested vocabularies, and definitions of human experience? How do we find the right words to map that place, to bring some kind of connection with the agreed-upon world of people who can only watch from outside as others go through sometimes horrifying journeys and tortures of consciousness?
My parents were downsizing. My father said the only things he was sad to part with were his books. Kevin and I tried to put him at ease. We explained that book lovers who live in small spaces must be ruthless. Every few months, when we notice our shelves overflowing, we make a trip to Goodwill.
Of course, there are some books we will never discard. When I went to college, I brought along the ones I had loved as a teenager. They stayed with me when I moved to New York, even though I changed addresses three times before I had enough space to unpack them.
“Wild Things” doesn’t have much of an argument to make other than its premise that we should take children’s literature seriously, which I think many people already do, and yet the book succeeds wonderfully, not so much as an argument but as an eccentric essay, and an emanation of spirit.
South-east ASIA is adorned by jungles, islands and gleaming skyscrapers. Home to more than 640m people, the variety of the region’s 11 countries defies most analytical attempts at clustering them together. Sweeping takes often fail to encapsulate the complexity of ancient cultures, languages and people that are to be found from the tip of Timor-Leste to the top of Myanmar. This is precisely what makes “Blood and Silk”, Michael Vatikiotis’s frenetic overview of politics in South-East Asia, so ambitious.
The shortage of smart, professional digital newsgathering in smaller American cities is a real problem with no immediate solution on the horizon; sadly, the number of eyeballs likely to land before a local story online isn’t enough to generate the income that would justify making it. In the longer term we probably can’t crowdfund our way out of that. But old-timers might recall that, even in their glorious futon-store-advertisement-glutted heyday, alt-weeklies were never all that big on actual news. In a pre-internet era, the weekly publishing schedule meant that most alt-weekly writers were free to roam about gathering string for eccentric features of their own devising, untethered to news cycles or any other outside logic. News was something of an accidental byproduct of this process.
The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.
The interesting question at this point is not whether fan fiction can be good, by familiar literary standards. (Of course it can; cf. Virgil.) Rather, it’s this: What is fan fiction especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for? Early defenses presented the practice as a way station, or an incubator. Writers who started out with fanfic and then found the proper mix of critique and encouragement could go on to publish “real” (and remunerated) work. Other defenses, focussed on slash, described it as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world. If women want to imagine sex between people who are both empowered, and equal, the argument ran, we may have to imagine two men. In space.
It’s true that a lot of fanfic is sexy, and that much of the sex is kinky, or taboo, or queer. But lots of fanfic has no more sex than the latest “Spider-Man” film (which is to say none at all, more or less). Moreover, as that shy proto-fan T. S. Eliot once put it, “nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else.” It’s a mistake to see fanfic only as faute de mieux, a second choice, a replacement. Fanfic can, of course, pay homage to source texts, and let us imagine more life in their worlds; it can be like going back to a restaurant you loved, or like learning to cook that restaurant’s food. It can also be a way to critique sources, as when race-bending writers show what might change if Agent Scully were black. (Coppa has compared the writing of fanfic to the restaging of Shakespeare’s plays.)
Los Angeles is a city in a large, sprawling, dense county of the same name. Often, when people say Los Angeles, they mean all of Los Angeles County. It’s shorthand. What they most often mean is everything: the city, sure, but Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena, too. But these are not neighborhoods; these are cities with independent tax bases, policing, fire departments, and school districts.
As it turns out, some areas are also left out of this wide-ranging definition. It isn’t completely inclusive. You see, when people say Los Angeles, they don’t tend to mean South Central. They rarely mean Compton, South Gate, or Lynwood. These, too, are separate cities, islands unto themselves, and veritable no-go areas for many county residents.
This transformation of The New Yorker’s style from a topic of niche interest to a content-generation machine is marketing of the most calculating sort. The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.
And yet, Ricks concludes, their lives overlapped in crucial ways. They both lived through the terrifying twentieth-century confrontation with totalitarianism, in the forms of Germany’s national socialism, Italian fascism and Soviet communism. At the moment when these political movements aspired to wipe out liberal democracy, and to prove its obsolescence to the world, both Churchill and Orwell played crucial roles in pushing back. Both, says Ricks, “steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.” In 1939, Churchill described Britain’s heroic fight against the Nazis in this way: “It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.” Two years later Orwell wrote, “We live in an age in which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist.”
The reason for doing this is not only to grasp the bare bones of our language but to figure out how to deliver those bare bones in various configurations. Various configurations will keep your writing from becoming boring. They will make sure that the word or phrase you are writing is going to land in the right place. They will also allow a degree of beauty and/or mystery to enter your work. The poetic terms assonance, consonance, and alliteration are not confined to poetry; they come in handily in prose as well.
Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.
“What do you like to read?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it always makes me flinch. I am a reader — that is my identity before anything else, including writer, partner, or mother — but I have no idea how to answer that question.
Through multiple definitions of the word “safe” – physical, emotional, psychological, financial – Gattis has created a gripping novel about opportunity, transformation and hope.
I longed for the fearlessness of “My Struggle,” its unwillingness to tame “the ugly and unpleasant,” its oceanic sense of life’s dangers and unpredictability. But in “Autumn,” Knausgaard keeps us on the shore. The shells he gives us to admire are intricate, absorbing and beautiful; this book is full of wonders. But it isn’t, just yet, the whole story.
Dear Monica—that’s how you start a letter, with a salutation, I’d almost forgot.
Monica, my dear, my love, my girl woman pony heart—I’ve written you a letter! On paper! With pen! A letter!!!
(How many exclamation points do I have to use nowadays to come off as normal???)
I’ve been treading water for almost 10 minutes and my limbs are starting to ache. It’s 5:28 on a humid evening in late July, and there are only two minutes left in the private swimming lesson I’m giving in my family’s backyard pool. Ever since Jacob, who is 7, took his first tentative steps onto the diving board, he has inched towards the end with all the enthusiasm of a death row inmate approaching sentencing. Three feet below, I wait in the center of the deep end, my arms in a wide, welcoming posture. My legs thrash underneath me, working to keep my body afloat.
Today is a big day for Jacob. We both agreed before the lesson started that by the end, he would jump into the deep end. We’ve discussed it for weeks so that he could mentally prepare himself. But it’s clear to me now, as he creeps closer to the rim and stares into the depths below, that he never actually thought I was serious. “It’s too deep,” he says. I can see the fear wracking his body.
“Everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” Flannery O’Connor.
O’Connor gave this advice to writers, but she could have given it to painters just as easily. What O’Connor knew was that writers are painters with words.
The new media artist, Jeremy Hight, described this method of storytelling as “narrative archaeology,” where the fictional narrative became told through the space it occupied and as a story at least partially defined by the way we navigate it. Each section of the station, from the administration quarters to the engineering bay, triggers a 3-D recording of that space. While the crew appears only as colored outlines, they move and talk in the same space as you. We follow them, pause them, and rewind their moments as each of the six crew members intersect the others from their own narratives.
The Futilitarians tackles hopelessness, but it never succumbs to it. Gisleson writes with wit, warmth, and a spiritual devotion to books that never comes across as preachy.
History, Mark Twain is supposed to have said, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Once again, the President of the United States is a Republican who lost the popular vote. Once again, he was abetted by shadowy agents who manipulated the news. And once again Democrats are in a finger-pointing funk.
Journalists, congressional committees, and a special counsel are probing the details of what happened last fall. But two new books contend that the large lines of the problem are already clear. As in the eighteen-seventies, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that has altered the flow of information. Now, as then, just a few companies have taken control, and this concentration of power—which Americans have acquiesced to without ever really intending to, simply by clicking away—is subverting our democracy.
Whether you’re a dolloper or a Jackson Pollocker, a plate of chips just isn’t the same without a good squirt of ketchup. But why does it make chips taste so much better? It’s the same reason Iberico ham is more moreish than the boiled stuff and why a sprinkle of parmesan makes a bowl of pasta that much fresher. The answer is the Japanese word for “savoury” or “deliciousness”, the fifth and most elusive of tastes: umami.
Taste isn’t only about deliciousness. Your tongue, like a little blind gatekeeper, uses taste to control what gets in.
The competitive accumulation of material goods, a cornerstone of the American dream, dates to the post-World War II economy, when returning veterans fled the cities to establish homes and status in the suburbs. Couples married when they were young, and wedding gifts were meant to be used — and treasured — for life.
But for a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.
It’s no secret that the lack of gender diversity is an issue for the architecture and development world. It’s also an issue for elected officials who initiate policy: Among U.S. cities with populations of over 30,000, only 20 percent of mayors are women. A 2015 report by the American Planning Association not only notes the lack of gender diversity in urban planning careers—the field is 42 percent female—but also the fact that women are more likely to be affected by urban affordability issues: Up to three-quarters of households living in public housing are solely headed by females.
It turns out that the absence of women from the conversation about how cities have been made, and remade, over the last 50 years has directly fed their wealth disparity and urban displacement.
The artist Maira Kalman summed up the current popular regard for walking when she said, “Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”
Philosophers and thinkers have long pushed the idea of walking as respite, as a creative fountain — or as Nietzsche said: "Only thoughts that are reached by walking have value." But what if walking, far from being benign and noble, instead represents just another conflict of our ongoing culture wars, where the forces of progress have whitewashed the past to reach the present? This proxy battle celebrates the walker of leisure and ignores those who walk because they have no other choice.
These techniques and the goods they produce do have origins, specific ones rooted in history and in people. The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.
The faded advertisements on old brick buildings often go unnoticed, and they’re disappearing fast. That’s why one artist is shining a light on just how much they tell us about a city’s history.
To leave or not to leave, that is the question. Excitement and adventure, or the warm bath of blissful routine. Characters in Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s remarkable novels – On a Day Like This, Seven Years – seem equally attracted to both, afraid of missing out on the action, but afraid too of being unprotected and disoriented in a hostile world. In love with life, frightened of life – perhaps the two are not so different.
When T-Pain’s installment of NPR’s long-running Tiny Desk Concert video series went live in October 2014, it inspired a burst of hugely admiring and mildly condescending praise. (The verbiage ranged from “eye-opening” to “blows the entire world’s mind” to various iterations of “awesome” to “surprisingly, behind all that Auto-Tune he’s a phenomenally talented singer.”) With almost 11 million YouTube plays and counting, it’s easily the franchise’s single biggest installment, topping other high-profile visits from Anderson .Paak and even Adele.
Shepherded by NPR Music’s Bob Boilen (the performance space is still his actual desk), the series launched in 2008 and is now closing in on 650 performances, from the xx to the National to Jessie Ware to Common to Chris Stapleton. In July, Chance the Rapper made a highly touted and very reverential appearance, seven-member backing band in tow. “I’m a big fan of the series,” Chance began. “And I didn’t know it was actually, actually an office. So this is very uncouth.” Then he did an achingly gentle version of “Juke Jam,” covered Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” and recited a poem he’d written that morning, cheerfully restarting it after being interrupted by some sort of office intercom announcement.
There’s something transgressive about touching other people’s clothes—especially dead people’s clothes. Some would even call it spooky. As a costume curator and fashion historian, I have colleagues who swear that they have felt, and even seen, ghostly presences in their museums’ costume-storage areas. It’s easy to get the chills in those cramped rooms, which are climate-controlled to the ideal temperature and humidity for textiles, not for humans. I myself have not encountered any phantom fashionistas, but once I opened a box and a fox stole—complete with eyes, paws, tail, and teeth—seemed to leap out, making me scream so loudly that two security guards came running. Occasionally I’ll find a stray hair, a frayed hem, or a telltale stain on an otherwise pristine garment carefully packed away for posterity in acid-free tissue paper and remember, with a jolt, that there was once a living, breathing, sweating human body inside it—a body that has been still for up to hundreds of years.
Concluding a trilogy is a tricky business — not least when its first two installments have been justly honored with the highest awards in genre fiction. N. K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate, like The Fifth Season before it, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last weekend, just in time to pave the way for The Stone Sky with well-deserved acclaim.
But the fact that The Stone Sky sticks the landing of this astonishing trilogy with timeliness and rigor is the smallest, simplest thing I have to say about it. The gratitude and love I feel for these books, and for what The Stone Sky adds to the triptych, is staggering.
Paul Yoon’s new collection, “The Mountain,” is not what you’d call delightful — the stories are sober and the prose is quiet, yet in that is the howling of the human condition that makes the best short fiction stand out. Only six stories long, it is also a small collection and an almost unfailingly tight one from Yoon.
Early in his career as a narrator of audiobooks, George Guidall received a note from a truck driver in Montana. The man had been so absorbed in listening to Mr. Guidall’s eloquent recording of “Crime and Punishment” that he drove off the road. He was writing from his hospital bed to thank Mr. Guidall because he now had time to finish listening to the book.
In short: Coffee. With the advent of the doughnut machine, doughnuts became more common in bakeries across the country. And since most bakeries were already serving a good ol’ cup of joe for people to buy with their morning bread, by sheer association, the doughnut, too, became a plausible breakfast item.
“Thought” is the title’s keyword. Mr McCrum is fascinated by both the physiology of the brain and how humans—particularly members of his own generation—think about dying. Baby-boomers, he argues, live in a “fantasy of immortality” fostered by advances in medicine, the cult of the independent self and capitalism’s emphasis on perpetual growth. As a hospice clinician puts it: “Western society sees death as a failure.”
Cities change. The neighborhoods we fall in love with as natives and newcomers can metamorphose slowly, or overnight. Those who can stick around shoulder the loss and move on, hardened to the next wave of inevitable transformation.
But if the latest tide of urban change seems different—too glassy, too uniform, too corporate to be natural; more like a siege than a shift—you’re not alone. In Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, author Jeremiah Moss nails a valuable argument: New York City’s current state of “hyper-gentrification,” as he calls it, is no passive turn of the free market, but the culmination of a calculated takeover by elites decades in the making.
The null results are rapidly squeezing the regions of parameter space where dark matter might lurk. Confronted by the drought of data, theoretical physicists have conjectured about more exotic particles, but the vast majority of these candidates would be even harder to detect. One could instead hope to produce dark-matter particles at a particle accelerator, so that we could infer their presence by default: by checking whether energy seemed to go missing in particle collisions. But the Large Hadron Collider has tried precisely this and noticed nothing so far. Some theorists suspect dark matter doesn’t exist and our theory of gravitation—Einstein’s general theory of relativity—has led us astray. General relativity tells us that galaxies would fly apart if not held together by unseen matter, but perhaps the theory is wrong. Yet general relativity has passed all other observational tests, and all rival theories have seemingly fatal flaws.
Eighty-five percent of all matter is unknown. Our greatest fear is that it will always remain so.
When I moved to the city, I thought I would live in Greenwich Village, but affordable apartments were no longer scarce, they were nonexistent. Still, aching to be part of a scene already vanished, I searched the Village for the bohemianism I longed for. I had read about the White Horse Tavern, the place where writers once gathered and Dylan Thomas whiskied himself to death. The first time I walked in, I was shocked to find a crowd of Wall Streeters in dark suits, making their animal herding noises around the bar. But if I went to the White Horse early in the afternoon, I could sit alone in the quiet middle room, under the portrait of Dylan Thomas, and nurse a pint of beer while writing poetry and chatting with an elderly woman named Sunny who also liked to sit in that room and nurse a drink or two. Sunny was such a regular the White Horse hung her framed photograph on the wall. She would tell me about her husband, a Hollywood screenwriter who specialized in bullfighting movies, and I would read her my poems.
Over time, I would discover the few authentic places of the Village that remained uncontaminated. But loving those bars, cafés, and restaurants has been a dangerous and painful affair. In the 2000s it seemed that every time I fell for some place it was snatched away, given over to a successful restaurateur to be gutted and glamorized.
On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.
This week, as fans mark the 40th anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s (alleged) passing, those who believe that Presley is still alive will have a golden opportunity to make their case. Or, rather, cases. “Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.
The premise for this book club is simple. It’s a gathering of people who go out to a public space for the purpose of reading together. Unlike traditional book clubs, there are no mandatory reading selections, and nobody facilitates a discussion. Think of it as cocktail hour for introverts.
It is when Handy shows his own weaknesses that he often stands on the firmest ground. He concludes “Wild Things” on a melancholy note, admitting that his foray into children’s literature allowed him more than a simple chance to re-encounter the favorite books of his youth. It allowed him the chance to hold close his children’s younger selves. “By one measure, I suppose,” he writes, “you are holding in your hands a work of sublimated grief.”
How beautiful, and how painful, and how incontrovertibly true. His book could have glided on such perceptions alone. It doesn’t need anything else.
It is a cerebral haunting in book form, a page-turning, suspenseful read that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it. Jemc has already demonstrated her knack for an ethereal kind of writing; her short story collection, A Different Bed Every Time, is a study in how uncanny circumstances can still be complex and nuanced, without sacrificing their unique weirdness. Like the work of Leonora Carrington, the effective terror of The Grip of It comes with sudden juxtaposition of the surreal, both in the subject’s environment and within the subject’s persona.
In Mississippi, people tweet about cake and cookies an awful lot; in Colorado, it’s noodles. In Mississippi, the most-tweeted activity is eating; in Colorado, it’s running, skiing, hiking, snowboarding, and biking, in that order. In other words, the two states fall on opposite ends of the behavior spectrum. If you were to assign a caloric value to every food mentioned in every tweet by the citizens of the United States and a calories-burned value to every activity, and then totaled them up, you would find that Colorado tweets the best caloric ratio in the country and Mississippi the worst.
Sure, you’d be forgiven for doubting people’s honesty on Twitter. On those rare occasions when I destroy an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I most assuredly do not tweet about it. Likewise, I don’t reach for my phone every time I strap on a pair of skis.
And yet there’s this: Mississippi has the worst rate of diabetes and heart disease in the country and Colorado has the best. Mississippi has the second-highest percentage of obesity; Colorado has the lowest. Mississippi has the worst life expectancy in the country; Colorado is near the top. Perhaps we are being more honest on social media than we think. And perhaps social media has more to tell us about the state of the country than we realize.
What is going on when a book simply makes no sense to you? Perhaps a classic that everyone praises. Or something new you’re being asked to review, something a publisher has warmly recommended.
I don’t mean that you find the style tiresome, or the going slow; simply that the characters, their reflections, their priorities, the way they interact, do not really add up. You feel you’re missing them in the dark. And your inevitable reaction, especially if you are an experienced reader, is that this must be the author’s fault. He or she is not a good observer of life.
But the exceptional competence and warmth of Noma’s staff was proof of a shift in service philosophy I’ve noticed in recent years — a reaction to the changing relationship between restaurant and customer. At dining’s loftiest cathedrals, the fulcrums on which spectacular hospitality pivot have subtly recalibrated. If the underlying motto of luxe hospitality has always been "let us take care of you," the finest practitioners now convey an additional message: "We're in it together." That attitude isn't meant to let service pros shirk their responsibilities. Instead it acknowledges the improvisational nature of genuine interaction.
Even in the best restaurants, things go wrong. Platters topple. Glasses break. Preferences are forgotten. Words are misunderstood. The finest hospitality pros I’ve seen in action understand that they can’t control what they can’t control; they can only control their reaction. And so they choose to react with sincerity, imagination, and diffusing levity.
Any description of H(a)ppy can only fail to do justice to its wildness and its honesty. It is a superb novel by a genuinely experimental and committed novelist. In Barker’s hand, narrative, however fragile, not only survives but thrives.
Some people scream. Some people cry.
Some do both.
The regular movements of the heavens are the oldest and deepest intimations of order in the universe. So it is hard, no matter how enlightened you consider yourself to be, not to feel a primordial lurch in your gut when the sun suddenly disappears from the sky.
I read an article about how couplehood and the attendant touching, not necessarily sexy, increases good health and longevity. I’m single and on the dark side of 60. I’m fine living alone, it’s fine, but when Trump got elected, for example, I had no one to gather me up and curl around me to protect me from everything incoming, nukes included. In a less grim example, I’m on a regular schedule of imaging tests for cancer, and I have friends, I have daughters, but reaching out every three months to express my scanxiety and beg for hugs seems overly needy. If I had a partner, in my case, a man, in the next room, I could complain at moments of peak terror and get held and hold on. Maybe live longer in better health. After reading the article, I wanted to know how much human touch I was receiving over the course of a week. Like, data-gathering.
One can often wonder why one author gets translated over another in English. There doesn’t seem to be a scientific formula to answer that. What seems to be the case, as seen through the Greek poet laureate and Nobel Prize winner, George Seferis, is that contact with English speakers and English writers, as well as a keen interest in a writer’s home country by some corner of the English-speaking world when that writer is alive secures the writer’s transmission into English. In the case of Seferis, he was writing at a time in which British writers found Greece to be intoxicating, not just for its past but for a contemporary vitality, which seems to have helped bring Seferis’s work into English and to secure his well-deserved reputation.
Neil Gaiman’s “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories” is a story that should not work. Gaiman states almost as much in the introduction to the collection, Smoke and Mirrors, that houses the story: “I wrote it higgledy-piggledy on a battered Atari Portfolio palmtop, on planes and in cars and hotel rooms, all out of order, jotting down conversations and imaginary meetings until I was fairly sure it was all written. Then I put the material I had in order and was astonished and delighted that it worked.” It’s a story about Hollywood and writing. It’s a story that meanders with almost no sense of plot. Yet, it works.
In the call centre at the end of the world
everyone is wearing the rags
of the clothes they came to work in two weeks ago.
People ask me whether I think in French or in English now that I’ve lived in the US a while. I lie when I answer this. I say it depends on what I’m thinking about—English for work, French for family and curse words. This answer is usually welcomed as logical: a language for the intellect, another for the feelings. Of course. The truth is I have no idea what language I think in, and because I’m a hypochondriac, I worry that this might mean I have a brain tumor. I end up wondering if I ever actually think of anything. In my head, it’s mostly blurry images, or blocks of sense memories colliding with whatever I’m presently seeing. Rarely a fully formed thought—unless I’m actively trying to make sense of something, the way I am doing right now. In conversation, though, some words come to me in English and others in French, and I have to pause for a second to find the correct translation.
Everyone loves ice cream. Everyone loves the idea of ice cream, the reality of ice cream. They love thinking about ice cream, and talking about ice cream, and eating ice cream. And it’s not just the ice cream itself, but the old-timey experience of ice cream, which is the ultimate comfort food, the pasta of desserts. “You’re selling nostalgia,” says Nicholas Morgenstern, of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream on the Lower East Side. It’s not just a food; it’s a feeling. But actually running an ice-cream shop? That’s a business. “It’s not what you think it is,” Morgenstern adds. “If anyone has a fantasy about it, they’re not aware of what it takes to do it.”
Matt Fraction is, in fact, very smart — let’s get that out of the way. He talks like someone who writes all the time. Everything he says sounds as if it could be used later for dialogue; every comment is filtered through some adage or metaphor. Moreover, a very, very stupid person couldn’t have swapped the protagonist’s gender in a historically male-centric story in a way that didn’t feel contrived, or like a fussy Grand Sociopolitical Statement. A very, very stupid person couldn’t have gathered up these events and launched them through time and space to far-away planets in the distant future, and made it all work so gorgeously.
In its aftermath, an inquiry found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of those who died were poor, old, and lived alone. More surprising was the gender imbalance: significantly more men died than women. This was especially strange considering that in Chicago in July of 1995, there were more old women who lived alone than old men.
What made these men more vulnerable than the women? It wasn’t physical circumstances. Both groups lived mostly in “single room occupancy” buildings, or SROs—apartments of one room in what used to be called flophouses. It was social circumstances. The phrase “No known relatives” appears repeatedly in police reports of the dead men’s homes. Letters of regret were found on floors and in backs of drawers: “I would like to see you if that’s possible, when you come to the city”; “It seems to me that our family should have gotten along.” The single rooms of the deceased are described as “roach infested” and “a complete mess,” indicating few or no visitors. The women, according to Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book on the heat wave, had people who checked up on them and so kept them alive; the men did not. “When you have time please come visit me soon at my place,” read another letter, unsent.
What conditions lead to this kind of isolation? Why men?
Looking back, I’m surprised at how fast I unravelled, how the energyless fog of depression condensed into an electric psychosis, how despair became madness. One day, one of my editors had asked if I was all right. I said: “No, I’m not,” and started listing conflicts and confusions. (I was also surprised that she asked: I mean, it’s generally not the way that bosses look out for their employees.) A few days later I was in hospital.
Madness comes at you fast, to paraphrase the social media cliché.
But when “Frozen” was set in motion, Disney could not have known it would arrive on Broadway during an especially competitive time — directly opposite the new and acclaimed “Harry Potter” play. Another complication: “Frozen” fever is pervasive — the show has been adapted on ice, at Disney California Adventure Park and on a Disney cruise ship, and its characters and costumes are highly merchandised.
Because the “Frozen” material is so familiar, and the fans so intense, finding the right balance between replica and reinvention is complicated.
While Collingham ably catalogues the quest for ingredients that began in the 16th century with West Country fishermen setting sail to search for cod, some remark on the culmination of this imperial adventure would not go amiss. An acknowledgement, even, that the UK is now a neo-imperialist food economy, still using other people’s land and low wage foreign labour to feed its appetite. But perhaps such analysis is beyond the historian’s remit.
In the past five years, a bombardment of studies has exposed a problem: The canonical giant impact hypothesis rests on assumptions that do not match the evidence. If Theia hit Earth and later formed the moon, the moon should be made of Theia-type material. But the moon does not look like Theia — or like Mars, for that matter. Down to its atoms, it looks almost exactly like Earth.
Confronted with this discrepancy, lunar researchers have sought new ideas for understanding how the moon came to be. The most obvious solution may also be the simplest, though it creates other challenges with understanding the early solar system: Perhaps Theia did form the moon, but Theia was made of material that was almost identical to Earth. The second possibility is that the impact process thoroughly mixed everything, homogenizing disparate clumps and liquids the way pancake batter comes together. This could have taken place in an extraordinarily high-energy impact, or a series of impacts that produced a series of moons that later combined. The third explanation challenges what we know about planets. It’s possible that the Earth and moon we have today underwent strange metamorphoses and wild orbital dances that dramatically changed their rotations and their futures.
In 1543, a Chinese ship with three Portuguese sailors on board was headed to Macau, but was swept off course and ended up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. Antonio da Mota, Francisco Zeimoto and Antonio Peixoto – the first Europeans to ever step on Japanese soil – were deemed ‘southern barbarians’ by the locals because of the direction from which they came and their ‘unusual’, non-Japanese features. The Japanese were in the middle of a civil war and eventually began trading with the Portuguese, in general, for guns. And thus began a Portuguese trading post in Japan, starting with firearms and then other items such as soap, tobacco, wool and even recipes.
The Portuguese remained in Japan until 1639, when they were banished because the ruling shogun Iemitsu believed Christianity was a threat to Japanese society. As their ships sailed away for the final time, the Portuguese left an indelible mark on the island: a battered and fried green bean recipe called piexinhos da horta. Today, in Japan, it’s called tempura and has been a staple of the country’s cuisine ever since.
Gas station hot dogs don’t take breaks. You may pull into a rest stop, refill your car’s tank, empty your own, grab some snacks, and peel out again. The whole time, the dogs will have been rotating, slowly, on their shiny metal rollers. When you finally turn in for the night, they may be turning still.
Once it has begun its treadmill journey, how far does your average hot dog go before it’s sent to the Great Bun in the Sky? And if, for some reason, it kept going—spinning slowly, hour after hour and year after year—how far could it eventually get?
In Linescapes, Hugh Warwick provides a good-humoured, even visionary, perspective on the fragile ecology of our hedges, roads, power lines and railways. Often opting for the hedgehog’s-eye view (his first book, A Prickly Affair, declared his passion for this important indicator species), he reveals how the man-made lines in our landscape present a paradox. They were originally put there to fragment, assert ownership or to restrain livestock, yet over time their edges and intricacies have provided opportunities for adaptable wildlife to flourish. Walls sympathetic to wildlife can contribute to its recovery, sometimes “very slowly, as lichens inch to the corners of the compass. Sometimes with the sneaky speed of a stoat on a mission.”
The simplicity is Sharma’s effort to get past all the temptations of falsity, of false style and ready-made ideas. His writing shines its clean light, never mercilessly or voyeuristically, on these characters winding round and round inside the muddled opacity of their lives and their thoughts. They, as well as the writer, struggle for the truth.
When Hurricane Sandy arrived in 2012, barreling up the Eastern Seaboard and heading straight for New York, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected a massive surge in New York Harbor. “I realized it would hit the flood maps that FEMA produced,” Leidner says, “which meant East 13th Street was about to be flooded.” He churned out memos, with maps attached, urging the response community to prepare. Con Ed (as the utility is known) workers hastily constructed barriers around the transformers that connected to buried wire ferrying current for blocks. But when the water breached the river wall and spilled across FDR Drive toward the substation, the barriers weren’t enough.
Leidner called up some images on his laptop: a white-hot nova as the transformers exploded; and in the aftermath, an overhead shot of Manhattan, dark below 34th Street (save for a sliver of light in Battery Park City), a blackout that lasted three days. The damage included the shutdown of NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital—their backup generators failing, Leidner notes, because critical components were located in basements, subject to the same East River flooding that swamped the substation.
I have so much to ask Benjamin and so I talked my friend M. into the hike even though it is rated difficile with three little hiking boots and a warning that one needs proper footwear, food, and water. Halfway through the day I admit to myself: Three boots is at least one too many for someone like me who is middle-aged and overweight. Someone like Walter Benjamin. In fact my companion, M., with his asthma, and I are both a little like Walter Benjamin.
Before Benjamin set off on this trail, which was his final attempt to escape the Nazis, his health had deteriorated from years of exile. Having been stripped of his German nationality, Benjamin tried unsuccessfully to get French naturalization. Like my own grandfather, he was stateless, making it almost impossible for him to get travel documents. And few countries were accepting Jewish refugees. Short of money and a stable address, he relied on the kindness of friends. For most of this desperate time he took refuge in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, surrounded by what he loved most: books.
For much of the 1950s, television in the UK was viewed in much the same way as the radio programming it was beginning to replace: Live newscasts, teleplays, and other series were intended to be consumed in the moment. If viewers really liked something, then it would be “repeated” by reassembling the actors and performing it for a second time.
“Television meant being live, over, and done with,” says Richard Molesworth, a BBC historian and author of Wiped!, a detailed chronicle of how the channel discarded a large chunk of Doctor Who history. “When videotape came about in the late 1950s, it wasn’t seen as a means of preservation or as an archival format," he tells Mental Floss. "It was in case a program was to be repeated in a short period of time—days or weeks.”
Writers of fiction face many unknowables. But death presents a special case. As the universal final chapter, it is an unavoidable subject, but by definition it resists investigation. As Edwidge Danticat asks, common-sensically, in “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story,” “how can we write plausibly from the point of view of the dying when we have not died ourselves, and have no one around to ask what it is like to die?”
But we do ask. We ask writers.
Last week’s issue of this paper contained the following headlines: “Rooms for improvement” (in a story about British housing); “Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides” (on the firing of Anthony Scaramucci); and “LIBOR pains” (on interbank loan rates). The Economist is not alone in its taste for wordplay. Our colleagues at the Financial Times routinely sneak subtle jokes into their headlines (July 17th: “Why China’s global shipping ambitions will not easily be contained”) while those at the tabloids indulge themselves more obviously. On the arrest of a famous golfer for drink-driving: “DUI of the Tiger”.
These authors are fortunate to work at English-language publications. For English is unusually good for puns. It has a large vocabulary and a rich stock of homophones from which puns can be made. It is constantly evolving, with new words being invented and old ones given fresh meanings. And it is mostly uninflected, allowing for verbs and nouns to switch places.
A camera recorded Rudy Kurniawan, twenty-six years old but looking young enough to be carded, as he attended a Christie’s wine auction in Los Angeles, a catalog of fancy wines in his lap. The rare Asian among older white males, he wore a caramel-colored leather jacket, zipped up almost to the neck. His straight black hair is of modest length, and his sideburns just brush his ears. His eyes are dark and sharp behind black-rimmed eyeglasses. The auctioneer had just gaveled down a prize lot of wine that might have been made many decades ago by a callus-handed French farmer who would have been gratified to get a buck per bottle. In this year of 2003, somebody in this room had just bought it for thousands of dollars. Kurniawan turned to the person on his left. “Dude,” he said, “I drank that wine on Thursday night. Now I feel bad. Can I refill the bottle and put the cork back in?”
Kurniawan flashed a smile and chuckled to himself.
Here in the land of knee-jerk World War III threats, the vast majority of us working schmos commute to our jobs by car (ALONE, like very sad, lonely dumbasses), despite substantial evidence that this makes everyone who does it goddamned miserable.
Such an unfortunate state of affairs comes thanks to a beautiful, toxic American melange. There’s that peculiar strain of post-war automotive patriotism, and the powerful industries that grew out of it, like the tire and auto companies who ripped up the Los Angeles streetcar tracks. And then there’s our barbaric contemporary urban (or, rather, suburban) planning that centers the car, by which I mean is hostile at best (and deadly on the regular) to anyone who dares not go everywhere in a two-ton shrine to pollution, alienation and death. (Here’s a surprise: I don’t like to drive.)
Picasso’s blue period lasted three years. In 1901, a close friend of his killed himself, and the painter sunk into a serious depression, one that was to last until 1904. During this time, he painted virtually nothing but monochromatic pieces in blues and greens, usually of melancholy or impoverished figures. In my freshman year of college, in a darkened classroom in Art History 101, I learned a bit of color theory, including the notion of cool and warm colors. Cool colors in a painting, like blue, seem to recede; warm colors are foregrounded, hitting the eye first. This also seems to match their symbolic properties, with warm colors evoking dynamism, passion, intensity, and cool colors suggesting distance, restraint, calm. As a young poet, I wondered if this idea could be transferred to poetry. There were many ways, surely, for poets to suggest sadness or calm aside from merely the subject matter. Could the idea of a poet’s palette be pushed further—could poets work visually on the page without color to achieve some of the same effects that color would?
The library at St. Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These illegible marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.
But now these erased passages are reemerging from the past. In an unlikely collaboration between an Orthodox wing of the Christian faith and cutting-edge science, a small group of international researchers are using specialized imaging techniques that photograph the parchments with different colors of light from multiple angles. This technology allows the researchers to read the original texts for the first time since they were wiped away, revealing lost ancient poems, early religious texts, and doubling the known vocabulary of languages that have not been used for more than 1,000 years.
The gothic has always returned to us what we repress, whether that be monks hiding in priest holes or bodies buried in swamps. Those who have been socio-economically repressed – fighting men, former squaddies, Travellers – resurge in this rich, fabular novel, as does something more radical and doomed: a pre-capitalist morality. The embedding of such myths in the language and landscape of Hughes, dragged down from the moorland and into the woods, makes for a scarred, black gem.
Throughout most of evolutionary history, sex was just sex. Among vertebrates, fish were the first to do it, going back some 400 million years. While it might be fun for fish and all the other species that evolved to reproduce sexually, for most species, sex still is just sex. But for our own peculiar species of primate, sex is about something more. Sex is about babymaking. Contemplating sex and where we come from has played a fundamental role in human mating, partnering and raising children, and in forming families, communities and alliances, and more. Recognising this fundamental difference between us and the rest of Earth’s sexual beings overturns conventional evolutionary thinking, which has long understood human sex, reproduction and kinship as fundamentally the same for us as for any other mammal.
Why do I care? Shouldn't I, like most consumers of American pop culture, revel in seeing a once-dignified person debased on television? No. Because the fact is, Union Pacific was one of the first truly nonpareil meals I'd ever eaten. Rocco's food helped make me interested in food. And as a lover of said food, I struggle -- truly struggle -- with trying to understand Rocco's refusal to cook. It upsets me, still. Confuses me. Is it an act of defiance, or one of survival? A temporary respite that just got too comfortable, or a well-planned second act? When we look at Rocco, are we looking at an American success story, or a tragic narrative of talent wasted?
What if Thelonious Monk quit jazz to write toilet bowl cleaner ad jingles? Or Salinger started doing Harlequin romance novels? What happens when someone believed to have a transcending talent simply stops doing the thing they've been blessed with? Is he cheating himself? Is he cheating us? What recourse, or right, do we have to tell them they're making a mistake? Because the fact is, one of America's great culinary talents refuses to cook. And I need to know why.
But what makes a good picture does not always taste good, and what tastes good does not always make a good picture.
“There is that saying that we taste with our eyes first, but I’m not sure that goes beyond the first bite,” says Rebecca Roth Gullo, who runs the eminently Instagrammable Blackbird Doughnuts. “We don’t create food for Instagram, but I know many chefs who do. Nor do I think it is wrong. I don’t know if eating is necessarily about taste anymore.”
Only four seconds of film footage exist of Isadora Duncan dancing, at what looks like a garden recital, spinning with her arms crossed in fourth position. She’s wearing her signature toga, presumably dancing barefoot. She reported hating that footage, and despised being filmed in general, arguing that her style of dance was about organic movement rather than positions, which is certainly hard to capture on film. So why does she still occupy significant space in our cultural mythology if we can’t even verify her exceptionalism? Her cult following makes her legacy mostly word-of-mouth, and we can trace how her revolutionary ideas about modern dance have influenced later movements. We mostly are left with Duncan’s memoir, My Life, in which she insists on her own genius, the largeness of her mission in changing the face of dance, in messy and disjointed anecdotes, with all the grandeur of her larger-than-life persona.
Amelia Gray picks up the dropped stitches of Duncan’s own autobiography in her new novel, Isadora, in which she shines her spotlight on Duncan as a grieving mother, toeing the line of sanity. Isadora famously had two children—her daughter, Deidre, with Gordon Craig (son of actress Ellen Terry), and her son, Patrick, with Singer sewing machine heir Paris Singer, both of whom were killed in a car accident when their car drove into the Seine. Gray’s novel switches its narration between the grieving and half-mad Isadora, Paris Singer, Duncan’s apparently long-suffering sister, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s lover, Max Merz. We see the sisters’ fraught relationship, Elizabeth’s particular interest in grizzly news stories, and Isadora eating her children’s ashes. The book allows our gaze to lurk in the shadows cast by the family’s grief, and explores what it means to make art even when the world is crashing down around us.
“Broken River” is a remarkable performance, a magic trick that makes you laugh at its audacity. Lennon has written a realistic novel, with vivid characters and flashes of humor and an evocative mood, that is also a playful, sophisticated meditation on storytelling itself: down-home metafiction.
Then, in 2012, Chris walked through the door. Chris wasn’t just a savior; he was a face of the zeitgeist. At Harvard, he had roomed with Mark Zuckerberg, and he had gone on to become one of the co-founders of Facebook. Chris gave our fusty old magazine a Millennial imprimatur, a bigger budget, and an insider’s knowledge of social media. We felt as if we carried the hopes of journalism, which was yearning for a dignified solution to all that ailed it. The effort was so grand as to be intoxicating. We blithely dismissed anyone who warned of how our little experiment might collapse onto itself—how instead of providing a model of a technologist rescuing journalism, we could become an object lesson in the dangers of journalism’s ever greater reliance on Silicon Valley.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.
The acquisition of new technology is often a nonevent. Who remembers when they got their first email account, or Netflix subscription? You don't recognize these things as significant until much later. But I know exactly when I stepped into the world of GPS navigation: September 2006. Because that's when I got married. Our honeymoon plans called for a two-week road trip and I knew that without navigational assistance I might be divorced before the fortnight was over. So I spent $500 on a TomTom, my first GPS. I haven't asked for directions since. With the unblinking eyes of medium-Earth-orbit satellites constantly guiding the way, I've nearly forgotten the stress of driving in a strange place. Miss an exit? No big deal. Spy an intriguing side road? Drive down it. GPS has plenty of obvious upsides, but the drawbacks are more nuanced. Insidious, even. Chief among them is an atrophying sense of direction, an inability to get anywhere without a digital Sherpa. I recently got lost on my way home from the airport. I took a toll road that was new a few years ago, one that I've driven perhaps 20 times, always via GPS. I decided to see if I could navigate it without Waze on my iPhone, and within two miles I saw signs for the parking lot I had just left. I was going in the wrong direction. It's not that my instincts were wrong. It's that I no longer had any instincts.
Waiting in line is a scourge of modernity. According to David Andrews’s book, Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?, it wasn’t common until the Industrial Revolution synchronized workers’ schedules, causing lines that gobbled up lunch hours and evenings. Given that Americans are estimated to collectively waste tens of billions of hours a year in lines, it’s no wonder that some people try to cut, and others bitterly resent them. Yet jumping the queue without inviting violence is possible. Below, some pointers, courtesy of social science.
Something that is rigid cannot be deformed or bent without destroying its essential nature. Like Platonic solids, rigid objects are typically rare, and sometimes theoretical objects can be so rigid they don’t exist — mathematical unicorns.
In common usage, rigidity connotes inflexibility, usually negatively. Diamonds, however, owe their strength to the rigidity of their molecular structure. Controlled rigidity — that is, flexing only along certain directions — allows suspension bridges to survive high winds.
Dr. Ratner and Dr. Mirzakhani were experts in this more subtle form of rigidity. They worked to characterize shapes preserved by motions of space.
Jenny Zhang’s characters and scenic precision stand out in her debut collection of short stories, Sour Heart: Stories, a book that illuminates the lives of six young Chinese immigrant girls wrestling with what defines their history, family, womanhood, friendships, and themselves.
Don Greer and his wife, Helen, hid in a tornado shelter. Only he survived. Now, a team of engineers has committed to doing the impossible: building a structure that's stronger and smarter than the merciless, random powers of nature itself.
Not long ago I dreamed of a shopping mall. It was not a mall I had ever visited before, or even a mall I had heard mentioned in casual conversation while standing in line at the grocery store or post office. It was a secret mall, hidden from sight within the labyrinthine expanse of the old Westinghouse Electric building near where I live in the Churchill Valley. Still the mall was familiar in the way common places register in your mind: hotels, schools, hospitals, and banks. Its bland architecture was reassuring, so much so that it was almost invisible.
The secret mall had no glowing marquee to signal its existence, and no streams of automobile traffic leading shoppers to its front doors. It existed unseen by the outside world; within a mysterious building I had spent a lifetime associating with bespectacled men in white lab coats and clandestine government projects. These were the same men whose homes I visited when they died and their belongings were liquidated at estate sales. Leafing through books in their personal libraries and ephemera left behind—a well-worn copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, corporate letterhead with the iconic Westinghouse logo designed by Paul Rand, tin toys that their children once played with—I tried to decode who these men were. Men of science and great intellect, I assumed. Men of means who could afford to live in large houses that boasted studies and dens. Perhaps even men who kept secrets from their wives and children and friends.
The use of public space in cities around the world is an effective way for both governments and citizens to express themselves. These uses include: exercising authority, as well as challenging it; celebrating and mourning; and casual recreational activity. These ways of engaging with public space have never quite translated into the Australian context.
This is because the architecture of public spaces provided the environment for colonial dominance to be achieved. While towns and new suburbs in the young colony were deeply influenced by European urban design, a key feature was excluded – the piazza. Governor Richard Bourke made very clear to surveyors that new towns in New South Wales (which at the time encompassed present-day Victoria) must not include public squares as these could promote rebellion.
In times of national crisis, it sometimes helps to put things into words. In 1941, declaring that “highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”, George Orwell sat down to compose The Lion and the Unicorn, a classic essay on “the English genius”. He observed, with his usual astringency, that “We call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”, and wondered how to make sense of this patchwork. Orwell also painted a sentimental picture of a prewar world: “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of early morning”, a description that’s become the butt of satire.
Almost 80 years on, with Brexit battles raging across the airwaves, there’s a mini-boom in books about Englishness, including this follow-up to Robert Winder’s acclaimed Bloody Foreigners. Well-crafted, reflective and quite personal, The Last Wolf is also original and deeply researched. Not that this guarantees anything when it comes to analysing those “hidden springs”. As Winder rightly observes: “trying to nail down any national character is like trying to grab smoke”.
These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.
Every week, a ship like this one brings 40 container loads of bananas — or about four million — to the Red Hook terminal, a fifth of the 20 million bananas distributed around New York City each week.
When bananas arrive in New York, they begin a second journey, traveling in a large loop around the city. They may be handled by customs officials in Brooklyn, blasted with a ripening gas in New Jersey, haggled over at an enormous produce market in the Bronx and finally taken in an unmarked truck, at night, to a fruit stand near you.
“If you ever saw what it took …,” said Joe Palumbo, the owner of Top Banana, a wholesaler in the Bronx.
The frightening new book Destined for War illuminates the shifts in the balance of power on the Pacific Rim that may carry us closer to a new global war, thanks to the inexorable rise of China and its potential — perhaps inevitable — military clash with the United States. A meditation on the perils of war and the challenging possibilities of peace between these two great powers, this book asks uncomfortable questions, provides few comforting answers, and leaves the reader uneasy with dangerous knowledge.
Harvard professor and former Defense Department official Graham Allison lays out a theory to which he has devoted much of his recent scholarship: “Thucydides’s Trap,” which he defines as “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one,” as happened when a rising Athens challenged the supremacy of Sparta in ancient Greece — a war chronicled by the Greek historian Thucydides. The ruling power seeks to protect the status quo, while the rising power asserts the prerogatives of its newfound wealth and influence.
In her new memoir, Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, Harpham relives the heartbreak, hope, and terror she experienced as she watched her infant daughter cross the abyss of a life-threatening disease. Into this tension-torqued story of sickness and health, she works in the fraught tale of her own evolving relationship with Morton, loading the memoir with an added intensity.
“Great literature has always been the […] Forgiveness of Sin,” W.B. Yeats wrote in 1901, “and when we find it becoming the Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot […] literature has begun to change into something else.” Eliot’s problem, as Yeats recognized, lay in finding a balance between her conflicting instincts: to sympathize with people and to judge them. Eliot felt it her duty to cultivate “direct fellow-feeling” and be generous toward the little people, even though, as she well knew, they had often failed to be generous to her.
The Eliot problem helps to explain why some 15 biographies of her have appeared over the past 30 years or so. (There doesn’t seem to be any Dickens problem or Trollope problem that requires such obsessive attention.) Philip Davis’s The Transferred Life of George Eliot is the latest entry in this series, and it is a brief for the greatness of George Eliot as a thinker, a novelist, and a person, and thus a justification of literature as she chose to write it. Davis’s particular approach is “to understand [Eliot’s] life through her work because it was to her work that she transferred and dedicated her life.” What defines Eliot, in Davis’s view, is “her commitment to the role of imaginative sympathy in understanding,” which makes her not just a great writer, but also an admirable person.
Peter Godfrey-smith is something of an Oliver Sacks of cephalopods. The analogy isn’t perfect — he doesn’t attempt to diagnose or cure mental disorders in octopuses, and he lacks any long-standing relationships with them, though he certainly identifies individuals and their quirks. But just as Sacks could see the human condition reflected in individuals with profoundly different ways of perceiving the world from the norm, Godfrey-Smith asks in Other Minds: Who is like us? What makes a person live in her own mind, and recognize it as separate from the mind of another? Sacks asked such questions of people with neurological dysfunction, whereas Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds asks them of a species that is uncannily personable without being at all human. An octopus can gaze at you with what seems like a facial expression, changing color as if with a change in mood, even reaching out a tentacle to touch an inquisitive diver.
Scientists have known for decades that octopuses and their relatives can solve puzzles and navigate mazes, have camera-like eyes just as humans do, and seem more like vertebrates than the snails and jellyfish to which they are much more closely related. YouTube videos show them unscrewing the lids of jars to clamber out of confinement, or confounding their keepers by circumventing the experiments in which they are placed. They are capable of learning which food types are easier to acquire and remembering their discoveries for weeks at a time. They play. The famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau mused on the octopus’s “soft intelligence.” But unlike other animals that we see as intelligent, such as great apes, or crows and their kin, octopuses seem unsettlingly alien.
here’s a compelling case to be made that taking on climate change could transform the lives of people still reeling from the fallout of the recession, and respond to both the ecological crisis and the economic pain that drove many to vote for Trump. An Inconvenient Sequel—Al Gore’s latest documentary—never makes that case, opting instead for at-length explanations of glacial ice melts and the sausage-making behind international agreements. As both a film and a political treatise, its biggest problem might be just how much the story revolves around Gore and his outdated view of how politics work.
Just your average summer beach read about emergent super-AI, nuclear annihilation, Silicon Valley and Amazon product reviews.
No, I mean seriously. Rob Reid's newest novel, After On, is a doorstopper: 547 pages which, at the very start, he dares the reader to finish — promising a gift at the end for anyone who does.
Nowhere is this idea of a place that really exists only in your mind more true than it is in Paris, although many writers seem to want to overlook this. The world’s bookshelves are overstuffed with earnest first novels by fresh-faced expats, backpackers, and dreamers who have journeyed to Paris for one reason or another and were swept up by the beauty, the culture, the food, the wine, the fashion, the scarves, and the Vespas. For a while there was even a Facebook group of expat women who were all writing first novels about Paris. I’m 98 percent sure they all featured sidewalk cafes, croissants, and cute boys named Jean-Claude who will, in the end, or maybe even from the get-go, fall madly in love with them.
Ironically, one of the questions a writer of fiction hears most often is, How much of the story is true? It is a slightly annoying question. One is prompted to ask whether the story does not stand on its own. Yet it is an understandable query. What is being asked is, How did you do it? Where does it come from? These are questions we all wish to ask but can rarely answer. Behind them lies all the mystery of art.
I am, in short, a half-hearted participant in what observers like Anne Trubek, in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, and Aileen Douglas, in Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing, 1690–1840, identify as our contemporary moment of media transition. Is handwriting history? Trubek’s and Douglas’s histories of penmanship illuminate the complicated feelings—indignation and nostalgic regret, tinctured, maybe, by relief—this question provokes. Readers mourning handwriting won’t find comfort in these books. But they will learn about the social preconditions that shaped the romanticizing of the writing hand and its work in the first place.
Both Douglas and Trubek emphasize how recent and historically contingent that romanticization is. Each homes in on the familiar association between handwritten (as opposed to mechanically produced) communication and values like self-expression, authenticity, and individuality. Their books show instead how often ideals of replicability—of accurate, uniform, mechanical copying—have overshadowed the value system that prizes in handwriting those distinguishing lapses from legibility that lend communication a personal touch.
In his latest novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, Wilson once again responds to an all too plausible scenario: what would it mean if artificial intelligence were the preeminent life on Earth? In his two previous novels, Wilson wondered what would happen if the incipient artificial intelligence decided that humans were inimical to the future of life on Earth. Here, he’s more interested in what aspects of humanity might transcend our physical obsolescence, because in our current economic and political situation, it’s not clear why any neutral arbiter would choose us over enlightened AI.
The City Always Wins is a tale of defeat and dashed dreams and of hope’s persistence told in a poetic prose. The style is at once pared down and highly expressive. The tension between exuberance and restraint fits the subject matter and defines Hamilton’s method. He splits scenes to great effect, interspersing text messages, tweets and real headlines, raising the pitch until the final stretch of Khalil’s stream-of-consciousness. This private, continuous flow of thought at the end of the novel is an apt reflection of the retreat from collective, social energy to the individual and interior realm.
The relentless acceleration of pace mimics the confusion of the events, the sense of the people – who once seemed to hold the reins – losing control. Here is the novel form proving itself again, revealing far more than journalism can.
The man and woman stumble out into the muggy Missouri air, tearing up, then falling to their knees in the gravel. It's late afternoon, and the setting sun casts ochre rays through the willows and ash; lightning bugs have already appeared, neon flashes in the honeysuckle. But the man and woman have no idea what time it is, and their eyes aren't working that well either. For the past six days, they've been struggling to escape a hellish natural labyrinth carved into the hillside behind them, entirely in the dark.
Not half-light, not dimness, not relative dark: total, pitch darkness. Darkness so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face, or even be sure whether your eyes are open or closed. Lost within an ancient cave, the man and woman started off separate and alone, confronting mind-bending isolation that played tricks on their senses and produced ever-more-disorienting hallucinations. Fumbling and crawling, never sure which next step might break their necks or worse, they navigated through an alien environment marked by vermin, severe cold, tight confines, sudden drops, yawning pits, and sharp rocks. Eventually, they found each other deep below the earth, then painstakingly made their way to the surface. And the entire time, circling silently about them in the darkness, intimately near yet incredibly far away, has been a crew of producers and camera operators documenting their every move.
This isn't a psychology experiment or a military training exercise. It's a new show, Darkness, set to premiere on the Discovery Channel on August 2. Call it insane or call it brilliant, one thing is certain: it meets America's insatiable appetite for extreme reality TV, then takes it to a whole new level.
In the middle of a Russian swampland, not far from the city of St Petersburg, is a rectangular iron gate. Beyond its rusted bars is a collection of radio towers, abandoned buildings and power lines bordered by a dry-stone wall. This sinister location is the focus of a mystery which stretches back to the height of the Cold War.
It is thought to be the headquarters of a radio station, “MDZhB”, that no-one has ever claimed to run. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the last three-and-a-half decades, it’s been broadcasting a dull, monotonous tone. Every few seconds it’s joined by a second sound, like some ghostly ship sounding its foghorn. Then the drone continues.
As 2016 gave way to 2017, a turkey moved into the left turn lane of a major intersection in my hometown. Some say he arrived in January of this year; others are sure he was around in late 2016. But regardless, once he was there, he was there to stay. When he wasn’t in the street, he rarely strayed far from the nearby corner that he’d decided to make his home.
In suburban Ypsilanti, Michigan, the corner of Whittaker and Textile sits in between a residential area of schools and subdivisions, and a busier commercial area with a grocery store and several restaurants that dot Whittaker Road as it heads toward the highway. The turkey’s constant presence in this busy spot made him a local celebrity, and the unlikely, or perhaps inevitable, epicenter of a community in which humanity’s best and worst instincts played out.
Ms. French talked through her menu, annotating it like a memoirist. The main course today was lamb, not because it was part of her plan, she explained cheerfully, but because the swordfish she had ordered never arrived, and the angry phone calls she made got her nowhere. So Ms. French did what she always did: She vaulted off the disaster toward something else, something she hadn’t planned for.
Dinner at the Lost Kitchen is an occasion, and most restaurants of its caliber work to maintain an illusion of effortless perfection. Ms. French, who is 36, has built a cult following with her own approach — open, intimate and personal.
But image, character, language are static, dead things until plot gets a hold of them and makes them move. The more I write, the more I pay attention when I read, the more I understand that I love characters and words and pictures because of the way plot animates them. I’ve come to see plot as the particular series of movements that will best show the reader all the complexities the author wants him or her to see.
These stories are deeply imbued with feminist themes. Without being oppressively explicit about it (mostly), Hunt gets at the myriad ways women work to keep their self-possession in the face of social and interpersonal expectations.
Women allow ourselves to be sold a dream: that we can work our way up, transform things from the inside, that the beauty we create offsets the ugliness it’s ultimately selling. That there’s a space that’s actually ours. But I can’t say I regret ever aspiring to work at a magazine. As a kid I was moved by YM and CosmoGirl! because they spoke directly to me, understood my interests, answered my questions. As Marnell’s mentor Jean Godfrey June told Into the Gloss, “I just always wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t particularly interested in beauty. What I discovered as I became a writer is that everyone relates to beauty.” I wanted to relate with people too, intimately and as myself: to be a woman, and a writer.
On a quickly darkening Friday afternoon in February, the mood is light at David Forsee’s house. When the seventy-two-year-old Hamilton man spoke to his doctor earlier, he realized making an appointment to die is akin to buying milk or renewing your driver’s license. “I went from the mystical, complex question of which day is right, to waiting in line,” he says through his oxygen mask.
Forsee has Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, an ultimately fatal lung disease marked by progressive tissue scarring and shortness of breath, and in late January he’d been approved for medical assistance in dying (MAID). He requested Monday morning, but his doctor already had another MAID appointment—how about Wednesday at seven p.m.? “I don’t want to spend the day sitting around,” Forsee says. “Three hours to go, two hours to go—I couldn’t handle it.”
“I cried and laughed,” Forsee’s friend and housemate Sarah Truman says. “Who wants to die on a Wednesday night at seven?”
Unlike the breakfast sandwich or the cruller, the humble buttered roll makes no claims to lusciousness. It’s not really greater than the sum of its parts: a round roll, sliced and slathered with butter. There is no alchemy involved.
And yet, like many New Yorkers, I’ve breakfasted all my life on buttered rolls, wrapped in plastic, foil or wax paper and sold for about a dollar at any corner deli, bodega or coffee cart.
Do I love them? No. That is not really the point. I love that they exist, an unsung, charmingly ordinary hero of the city’s mornings.
Self-portraiture is now so ubiquitous that it’s interesting to discover it only gained momentum during the 15th century, around the same time the “cult of the artistic personality,” write Reynolds and Peter, also arose. Self-portraits can be practical: some artists lack the funds to pay for a professional model, or they’re sketching out a new technique and want to keep the stakes low. The form satisfies instincts toward immortality, self-reflection and self-aggrandizement (#selfie), not to mention the human imperative to investigate if others perceive us as we perceive ourselves.
A little more than a billion years later, in the early hours of 14 September 2015, some of those ripples were detected by scientists in the US. By any standards, this was a truly remarkable achievement. The astronomers had managed to identify a disturbance that had lasted only 20 milliseconds – much briefer than the blink of an eye – and was smaller than a millionth of the width of an atom. They had found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, a feat likely to be rewarded soon with a Nobel prize.
In Ripples in Spacetime, the Dutch astronomy journalist Govert Schilling gives us a lively and readable account of the waves’ discovery. They had first appeared in the mind of Albert Einstein almost a century before, after he deduced their existence from his new theory of gravity. For reasons that Schilling does not make entirely clear, Einstein twice doubted that the waves existed but was eventually convinced that they should be part of nature’s fabric.
Few eclipses have had more impact on modern history than the one that occurred on May 29, 1919, more than six minutes of darkness sweeping across South America and across the Atlantic to Africa. It was during that eclipse that the British astronomer Arthur Eddington ascertained that the light rays from distant stars had been wrenched off their paths by the gravitational field of the sun.
That affirmed the prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, ascribing gravity to a warp in the geometry of space-time, that gravity could bend light beams. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” read a headline in this newspaper.
I am stranded on Mars. The fuel tanks on my return vessel ruptured, and no rescue team can possibly reach me before I run out of food. (And, unlike Matt Damon, I have no potatoes.) Luckily, my ship features a teleporter. It is an advanced bit of gadgetry, to be sure, but the underlying idea is simplicity itself: the machine scans my body and produces an amazingly detailed blueprint, a clear picture of each cell and neuron. That blueprint file is then beamed back to Earth, where a ‘new me’ is constructed using raw materials available at the destination site. All I have to do is step in, close my eyes, and press the red button…
But there’s a complication: a toggle switch allows me to decide whether the ‘old me’ on Mars is preserved or destroyed after I teleport back home. It’s this decision that is causing me to hesitate.
Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneos, melas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of Ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.
Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.
Among the crowds on Kweilin Street in the run-down Hong Kong neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, Alla Lau darted between street signs, peering at the backs of them until she found what she was looking for. She beckoned a group of tourists, mostly white, in flip-flops and with American accents.
“There,” Ms. Lau said, pointing to a handwritten white sticker in Chinese characters that referred to the grimy building across the street. It was an advertisement for one of Hong Kong’s notorious cage apartments, where, for as little as 1,200 Hong Kong dollars a month (about $154), people could rent a cage to sleep in, stacked three deep, with barely space to sit up.
Like many suburban boys in the sixties, I had a childhood infused with images of prehistory. I was obsessed with the stop-motion dinosaurs in the rarely broadcast 1933 movie King Kong, savoring glimpses of their obscure forms through the bluish haze of our rabbit-eared black-and-white television. I pored over popular-science books such as Time-Life’s Nature Library series and The World We Live In, searching for images of long-extinct animals and early hominids. I collected plastic dinosaurs, carefully razoring away their unsightly seams and painting them with what I thought were more realistic reptilian stripes and spots. I hid from the oppressions of my school, neighborhood, and father behind fragrant boxwoods, and arranged these beloved miniature monsters in jungle tableaux of prehistoric conflict. Desperate to see into the deep past, I was drunk with paleoart. What I didn’t know in 1968 was that such primeval imagery was barely over a hundred years old.
Con men in Japan collectively pull in over $400 million a year. One of their most successful grifts is the Ore, Ore scam, in which the con man calls an elderly person, says, “It’s me,” and then tells of some bind he’s gotten himself into and needs money to get out of. The elderly person, duped into believing that the con man is a younger relative, sends cash through registered mail or transfers money into a bank account. The scam is so common that Japanese children, at school festivals, pass out “It’s not me” flyers to elderly attendants, warning their grandparents about the dangers of Ore, Ore. It’s even so ubiquitous that Japanese noir novelist Tomoyuki Hoshino is able to use it as the catalyst for his novel ME, which has recently been translated by Charles De Wolf.
ME begins with disaffected camera salesman Hitoshi Nagano eating lunch at a Tokyo McDonald’s. A group of three salarymen stand nearby, one of whom bullies the other two. Hitoshi steals the bully’s cell phone, more to be a jerk than to actually have the phone. When he gets back home, the phone rings and the screen tells Hitoshi that the call is from “Mother.” Hitoshi answers and pretends to be the bully, Daiki. He tells Mother he’s had a car accident that led him to running up a bunch of debt. Now, he’s in a tight spot. He convinces her to wire ¥900,000 (about $8,100) to Hitoshi’s bank account. She does so.